“Moana” Triumphs With Pacific Islander Representation and a Strong Female Protagonist

Moana Art
Art by Sally Chen

“Moana,” the new Disney princess movie, is the uplifting story of a young Polynesian girl who is destined from birth to become the next chief of her small island community and sets sail on an ocean voyage. It features newcomer Auli’i Cravalho as Moana and Dwayne Johnson as Maui, a hulking demigod with silky hair. “Moana” is the perfect mix of a princess story and an adventure movie, with an outstanding soundtrack that incorporates traditional Polynesian instruments with the lyrical genius of writers like Lin-Manuel Miranda to produce music that is authentically Disney in its brilliance.

“Moana” takes place on the tropical island of Montunui, shown in stunning shots of glistening waves and luscious forests. The island provides its community with all they could want––everything from fish from the waters to coconuts from the trees. This is the first Disney movie set in the Pacific Islands, demonstrating Disney’s growing emphasis on the importance of diversity.

The film incorporates traditional mythology into its tale. When Moana is a toddler, the sea chooses her to return the lost heart of Te Fiti, which had been stolen by the demigod Maui thousands of years ago, to its rightful place. Without the heart, the beautiful island slowly begins to wither away.

In the meantime, Moana grows up torn between the external pressures to be a good daughter and future chief and her internal desires to answer the call from the sea and leave the island. Moana’s theme song, “How Far I’ll Go,” a reflection of her conflicting feelings about her place in society, is reprised multiple times throughout the movie, each time sung with more and more confidence.

When the island’s resources begin to fall short because of the missing heart, Moana, with the help of her grandmother, realizes that she can follow her passions and fulfill her responsibilities at the same time by taking a journey to return Te Fiti’s stolen heart and restore the health of the island. In the inspirational culmination of Moana’s theme song, “I Am Moana,” Moana fearlessly affirms her identity and decides to go on her voyage. Defying her father’s orders, she sets off to sail the vast, unexplored ocean on an old boat, with nothing but supplies and a stowaway chicken for company.

Facing every obstacle along the way, from an uncooperative and arrogant Maui to a treacherous sea storm to her own lack of confidence, not to mention a half dozen or so actual monsters, Moana braves through all the dangers and comes out stronger because of them.

“Shiny,” a soundtrack standout, features one of these monsters––a giant, flamboyant crab obsessed with hoarding shiny objects. It is the perfect example of a typical Disney villain song, demonstrating Hamilton-esque wit and wordplay, and is sung in a glam rock style.

The movie is both a coming-of-age story and a Disney princess movie. Moana goes through a process of self-discovery and learns an important lesson about accepting all parts of her personality, even those that her father doesn’t approve of. The voyage helps her develop confidence in herself and her abilities: to sail, to defeat the monsters, to fix the island, and, eventually, to rule. This presents a stark contrast to early Disney princess movies, which provided little to no character development.

The film also strays from the classic Disney princess formula in other ways—Moana does not have a love interest. With “Moana,” Disney cements the path set forth by “Brave” (2012), which features a confident princess defying her parents by competing for and winning her own hand in marriage, and “Frozen” (2013), which turns the charming prince cliché on its head by making the Prince Charming a villain. “Moana” is so revolutionary because it’s about Moana’s own story, not about a prince completing her happily ever after or even happiness in spite of not having a love interest. The story focuses solely on her and her personal journey, providing an excellent role model for children about to embark on their own adventures.

Perhaps most important of all, the writers of Moana made a conscious effort to respect the cultures portrayed in the movie. This is something that Disney hasn’t been as careful about in the past––a popular criticism of “Pocahontas” (1995) was that it was insensitive to Native Americans. The writers of “Moana” ensured the authenticity of every detail with the founding of the Oceanic Trust, a team of people from Polynesia dedicated to factual accuracy and tradition. Most of the actors had roots in the Pacific Islands as well, allowing them to contribute their own unique experiences to the process. For example, Cravalho, who plays the role of Moana, said that she grew up hearing myths about Maui as bedtime stories, and for the role, blended her own image of him with the writers’ ideas to create a wholly unique character.

When representation is done well, it is a great way for an underrepresented group of people to see someone they can connect to culturally in a major movie. Children of Polynesian descent can look to Moana as an example for how to live their own lives. They can see her confidence and leadership as something to aspire to. It’s also an important opportunity for people who aren’t from that culture to learn about people who aren’t like them, especially for kids, who will learn to look beyond the scope of what they’re familiar with and search for new opinions they might not have considered before.

Representation of all cultures is more significant now than ever. Hopefully, more films like “Moana” will make people realize that the rich cultural diversity of our world is something to be celebrated, not hidden away.

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